October is Breast Cancer Awareness month and, according to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 29,360 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed in California this year alone.

For many people, the diagnosis of cancer causes severe emotional distress. Each of us has our own personality, beliefs, values, world views, and styles of coping which influence the way we deal with illness. Studies show that breast cancer patients, in particular, tend to reach out for emotional support, and many find support groups helpful in coping with their cancer experience.

A common problem for cancer patients is that friends and family may avoid them, feeling uneasy around them or not understanding what they are going through emotionally. One support group member used this analogy to explain: “You don’t really understand all of the emotions of giving birth until you’ve had a baby. It’s the same thing with cancer; others can’t really understand the experience unless they’ve been diagnosed.”

Often, cancer patients report that they feel pressure from friends and family to be strong and stay positive after their diagnosis. This can leave them feeling constrained from openly expressing their worries, fears, sadness, and anger with loved ones. Support groups can offer a sense of relief and the ability to talk openly and candidly. “You don’t have to pretend,” said one group member. “You can cry, you can laugh; they understand. They know exactly what you’re saying. You don’t have to explain or defend the feelings.”

Some group members report that it is helpful to compare themselves to others in the group to gain perspective on their situation. One woman said, “There was a person at the support group whose cancer was more advanced than mine. I thought, ‘Okay, that person had this and went through a lot more. I can do this.’”

The opportunity to talk to others who are further along in their treatment can also help to prepare for and cope with the effects of upcoming surgery and treatment. “My surgeon explained my upcoming mastectomy in great detail, but I was more interested in learning what the experience would be like at the other end of the scalpel,” said another. “With all the different stages in the group, they could give me a general idea of where I was going and what was going to come from this.”

An important facet of the assistance offered by support groups is not only the opportunity to be on the receiving end, but also the opportunity to be on the giving end. Group members often share how giving back allowed them to take meaning out of their breast cancer experience: “Amazingly enough, I found it healing to help others. That was such an eye-opening experience.” “I wouldn’t have believed, in the beginning, that I would have even survived. It’s great to be there for somebody else who comes and is scared.” “It makes me feel purposeful; it gives my life meaning.”

Renee Jarvis PhD, LCSW, whose extensive research has focused on breast cancer patients’ perceptions about supportive care, is the clinical supervisor at CancerPartners. The local nonprofit’s program of emotional and educational support includes free-of-charge support groups for people with cancer and their caregivers. Dr. Jarvis can be reached at (760)770.5678, and more information about CancerPartners is available at www.cancerpartners.org.

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